Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Starting a Support Group

Raising kids is difficult for all parents, but it’s even tougher when you have a child with a mood disorder. Unlike other moms, you can’t easily share your challenges at playgroups, how could they possibly understand? Heck, most of us can’t even attend playgroups, or have been kicked out of them due to our child’s behavior. This leads to isolation, a serious condition that only leads to more pain.

I’m often asked about what advice I would give to a parent who recently had a child diagnosed with a mental illness. Usually at the top of my list, is find support! I can’t stress enough how important it is to find support, even if it’s just one other person to sit with you when you cry, or listen as you vent your frustrations. It’s even better when the person knows first hand what you’re going through, it’s truly healing to know that you are not alone.

I can still remember in the beginning of my son’s illness when my husband and I hid our challenges from family and friends, it was one of my lowest times. I found that once I started opening up to those I trusted and writing this blog to find all of you, my pain started to disperse and I began to feel hope again. I started to heal from the inside and I found strength to keep moving forward, even when I didn’t have all the answers. Support is pretty miraculous!

One step that I’ve always wanted to take was to start a local support group, with moms just like me who I could meet with face-to-face. Last month, I did just this.

It’s a small group, and private so I won’t be talking about it here, but it’s been very nice. I can sit with those who can understand my journey. We can laugh out loud about the wild experiences we’ve had and tear up as we share a feeling that many don’t. It’s a safe place where I can look into another mom’s eyes and share my truth without worrying about being judged or misunderstood. It’s just what I needed.

If you find yourself alone, starting your own group may be too big of a step right now, but I still encourage you to seek support. Start with just a trusted friend or family member. If you need to stay anonymous, check out the online support groups such as The Balanced Mind, they have a forum and can even help connect you to an online support group through their links. There’s also the “Parents of Bipolar Children Support Group” on MDJunction. On Facebook, there are many groups you can check out, one is “Parents of Children with Explosive Mood Disorders” which is a private group, just request to be added. Then there’s Easy to Love Hard to Raise on Facebook, it’s a public page so you can go right to it, just “LIKE” the page to follow it in your newsfeed. If you’re ready to meet face-to-face with others, check out NAMI and DBSA for your local organizations that can direct you to support groups meeting in your area. Also, check with your local hospital, they may have meetings too!

The point is, just do something, take the first step towards support and soon you’ll find others walking along side of you. If the first choice doesn’t work for you, try another, there are as many different support groups as there are personalities, keep searching until you find your place, I promise, you’ll know it when you get there, it will feel like home.

* * *


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Way to Go Brandon Marshall!

My husband shared this news link with me last week and I thought you might also find it interesting.

Last week Brandon Marshall, the wide receiver of the Chicago Bears was fined $10,500 by the NFL for wearing green cleats to promote Mental Health Awareness week. The fine was for violating the teams uniform and equipment code. I find this interesting because the league has embraced the players wearing pink cleats for breast cancer awareness, yet they punish a player for trying to bring awareness to mental health? Disappointing huh!

Well Brandon Marshall who himself is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder didn’t let that set him back, no, not only did he pay the fine, but he said that he would donate the same amount to charity.

Here’s his twitter response:
“Football is my platform not my purpose. This fine is nothing compared to the conversation started & awareness raised.”
I’m so impressed with this young man, his actions are a perfect example of how to rise above the  negativity and make something good happen out of something bad. In the end, he brought awareness to mental health and got people talking.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Hidden Blessing

After the rage last week, we got through the weekend ok with the exception of Saturday when my oldest was feeling pretty down again.

He was very irritable, and seemed to now hate things he once previously loved. He wanted to sell his favorite iPod because it was no longer fun and he refused to talk to me. He also seemed to be stuck on a negative thought pattern about a game he couldn’t have. As he grumbled with complaints, he would say, “I just want to die!”

It wasn’t a serious threat, it was just his way of expressing how much he hated everything in the moment. I spoke softly to him, asking him if he wanted to see his doctor and I explained that what he was experiencing was unhealthy thoughts and that this was a sign of his brain not working right. This was his illness.

I tried to use this moment as a teaching one, to help him better recognize his illness in the moment and know that what he was feeling was only a temporary feeling and that it too would pass. I ended up walking him around the mall, showing him how he can sometimes change his mood just by distracting himself. Sure enough, in a short time, he was smiling ear-to-ear and continued to feel good for the rest of the weekend.

I’m not sure how much sinks in when I talk to him, but I recognize that I have a small window of opportunity where I can coach him through these tough days. In a matter of years, he’ll be living on his own, starting his own life. I feel a great responsibility to teach him how to not only recognize his illness, but how to cope with it and help himself get better.

Like a mother who wants to make sure her child can feed and clothe themselves, I NEED to know that my son can take care of his mental health before he moves on.

If there’s one blessing we have as parents in raising young kids with mental illness, it’s being able to help our kids while they’re still under our care. I hear stories of young adults who have their first bipolar episode while away at college, or while at their new job, in a new city away from home. It must be such a burden for those parents who aren’t able to care for their children who due to their illness can’t care for themselves.

The hidden blessing I have is the opportunity to care for my son and in the process, teach him how to care for himself. Having the ability to drive him to his therapist, whether he likes it or not, teaches him the importance of therapy. In addition, getting blood draws, seeing his psychiatrist, taking medication and seeking support all teach him how to manage his illness. Then during the rough times, I hope to guide him out and show him the pitfalls along the way so that when he’s on his own, he’ll know what to look for and how to avoid harm.

I know that there are no guarantees, but I am grateful regardless that I have this precious time with my son to help prepare him for a beautiful life, even if it is a life filled with ups and downs.

Friday, October 18, 2013

It’s Been Rough Lately

I haven’t written this week because honestly, it’s been rough lately. All my energy has been directed at helping my oldest everyday study for his exams, along with a model science project that was due this week. I’ve been trying to pace each day, breaking down the steps so he isn’t overwhelmed, yet he’s still struggling with the work. He has a hard time studying on his own, so we spend the time together, going over material so he can recall it for the test. I keep thinking that there has to be a better way. Each day, his stress climbs and his threshold lowers. I’ve seen some progress under the strain, yet today he hit meltdown point again. And once again he raged.

This time after watching him slam his fists against his head and cry over homework, we ended up struggling on the front yard after he threatened his brothers. It was my attempt to get him outside, away from his brothers, but he’s a lot bigger now and he refuses to go for a walk to calm down. So there I was, struggling to hold him down, yelling out as he bit me. It wasn’t a bad bite, but still...

Of course, a neighbor was outside putting up Halloween decorations. Bless his heart, he stayed on task, giving us our privacy. At one point I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to get back inside without my oldest chasing me in, so I told my youngest son to run back in and lock the doors so he could feel safe. He did for a short time, then missed me and came back out, which led to my oldest running back in and terrorizing my middle son, who defended himself before heading outside.

I told both of my younger boys to head over to our neigbhor’s house, who was still busy with the decorations and wait on his driveway, knowing full well that my oldest wouldn’t bother them there. My oldest threw shoes at the windows, slammed patio furniture at the front door, then back inside threw stuff at me from a balcony up above as I sat calmly on the grass waiting for the fire to burn out.

Then he stopped.

All the stress of the week was worked out and he asked if he could go back inside to study.

Just like that.

As I retrieved my other kids, who were now having fun with the neighbor’s dogs, I thanked my neighbor for entertaining the boys while I helped my oldest son calm down. He was so kind. I didn’t feel judged, instead he offered to help me anytime I needed it. Of course I jumped on it and said, “Well since you’re offering, can I call you to come over the next time he rages to help him calm down?” I explained that just the presence of an outsider will help him de-escalate. He said, “Of course,” with a smile, “no problem at all!”

Looking over the past two weeks, I’ve seen with certainty the stress my oldest has been under. But there’s another sign, one that seems to show up when he’s depressed. I’ve seen that sign several times this week. Maybe this is more than just stress, maybe depression has a foothold.

Please pray for my precious boy.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Math Sucks Big Time!

I just went through another crummy afternoon during homework time. Things are getting tougher in school and the stress is building. What happens next... rage.

I’m thankful the windows weren’t smashed today, but we do have a bike that needs repair after my son took his anger out on the exterior of our home after I locked him out because he was threatening us.

The thing is, his house isn’t the problem.

His family isn’t the problem.

Nope, it’s his math class and I’m having a hard time fixing things.

About several weeks into school my son said, “I’m finally learning math!” He had an excellent teacher who was not only teaching my son well, but he was reaching out to him and his buddies who like Yugioh cards by letting them play in his room at lunch.

Then on Open House we got the bad news, this amazing teacher was being moved to an 8th grade class, leaving behind a sub for a little time, then a new teacher.

We thought we got through all the transitions, you know these are a killer for our kids, but then the new teacher made one more big change.

She started teaching a flipped math class. Have you heard of it?

Basically when the kids are introduced to a new math problem, they’re assigned several online math videos to watch at home, then after learning how to do the problem, they attempt to do 5 math problems as homework.

In class the next day, they have an opportunity to ask the teacher questions about this new type of problem. From there the teacher will walk the student through how to do it. After that, the class is assigned a large number of math problems to do in class.

Then the cycle repeats itself: watch video on your own, do problems, and come to class to ask questions and do more problems. At no time is the teacher teaching the students at the front of the class as they would typically do. Instead, all the learning happens during the homework time with the videos. Thus, a flipped class.

After the first test, almost all students failed, so they had the kids come back a week later to retake the test after school. My son still failed.

My son was getting As in math, now he’s getting Fs.

As you can imagine, this is leading to stress overload and complete meltdowns.

Because he does his math work in his study skills class, we’re having trouble getting him onto the computer to watch the videos before doing the problems. The class has a limited number of computers and they’re always being used by other students. My son has a hard time being proactive. At home he’s resistant to watching the videos since he’s already done the problems. When he does watch it, he’s annoyed by the online instructor who talks to them like they’re 2nd graders. So he may be tuning it out, or maybe he isn’t able to learn with this model. Either way, he isn’t getting it.

During class he doesn’t ask questions, which would be an opportunity to learn, because he doesn’t like to stand out, so instead he remains quiet, not learning a thing.

And today, that lead to a rage.

* * *

So have your kids had this type of flipped class and did they struggle with this teaching model?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Meet Merf—Living Well with Bipolar Disorder

Last week I introduced you to Merf and today I’m so excited because she has agreed to open up with us about her life and how she’s successfully living well with bipolar disorder. As a parent raising a child with the same diagnosis, it’s so encouraging to see people who are living good lives. Please welcome Merf to our community and enjoy her interview.

* * *

Welcome Merf, please share with us a little about yourself:
I was born in 1973 in Michigan, moved around a lot as a kid, but mainly grew up in the Atlanta area. I graduated from LSU in 1996 and moved back to Atlanta with my husband who is from New Orleans. We have four awesome kids, ages 15, 13, 9 and 1. I taught middle school for only a couple years after college, but quickly realized I wanted to be at home with my kids and have worked very hard and gone without a lot of things to be able to do that for the past 13 years. I began freelance writing about a year ago and spend much of my time writing about mental health issues. I also have a knitting business and sell my hand-knit throws and baby blankets on Etsy. I love loud music, Metallica is my favorite band ever but lately I’ve been listening to Skrillex and other loud dubstep a lot, I’m a huge fan of Mr. Bob Marley, I have several tattoos, I love beer, and my biggest pet peeve is when people don’t use their blinker.

What is your diagnosis? 
Bipolar 1 Disorder, ADHD

When were you diagnosed? 
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about 6 years ago and with ADHD recently.

How old were you when you first started experiencing symptoms?
This question is very hard to answer because I really just don’t remember. I definitely had a major depressive episode in around 1993 when I was in college. I remember having some symptoms of bipolar and ADHD going back till about the time that I entered my teen years. Basically, I have just been “me” since I was born, so I grew up, like most people who have mental illnesses, just thinking I was normal and had the same issues everyone else did. In college, I took a lot of psychology courses and one of them was “Abnormal Psychology” (I’m guessing they have a more politically correct name now) and learned about all sorts of psychological illnesses. When they started talking about bipolar disorder, I remember thinking “That’s abnormal?” I didn’t realize a lot of what I experienced was not considered “normal”.  So, I have most likely exhibited symptoms of bipolar and ADHD since I was a young child.

When did you realize that something was wrong? Was there a particular event or experience?
The time that I talked about in the previous question, about when I learned about bipolar disorder in college, is probably the first time I realized I may be “different” from the “norm”. After that, I forgot about the whole thing and did not revisit the topic until I was about 34, about 6 years ago. At that time I had a friend who I knew had bipolar disorder and he expressed his feelings through painting. I remember seeing some of those paintings (dark, morbid, heavy, philosophical) and feeling a deep understanding, as if I also felt the same way at times. I started researching bipolar disorder and found that I had pretty much all of the symptoms and always have.

What were your symptoms like when you were first diagnosed?
Roughly six years ago I was having trouble with depression. I had three kids at the time, I felt severely overwhelmed, I was having very frequent crying spells revolving around my kids…. I remember crying very easily, like having complete breakdowns, right after we got back from a family cruise. I would look at pictures of my kids and cry and cry because I didn’t want them to grow up. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I asked some family members of older kids if they had issues with that, being super sad about your kids growing up, and they said no. I realized I wasn’t feeling like I should and that was when I started suspecting bipolar.  Anyway, I went to the doctor and she put me on an antidepressant, saying if I had bipolar disorder I would definitely show signs of mania after some time of being on an antidepressant. Sure enough, about two months later I started having racing thoughts, not sleeping, and generally feeling extremely caffeinated (shaky, way too much energy, rapid speech). I called the doctor when it was clear I was manic and she put me immediately on an anti-psychotic, but I got worse instead of better and ended up in the hospital that night due to mania/psychosis.

What are your symptoms now?
I have issues with rapid-cycling moods and lots of mixed episodes, which are the worst. Rapid speech, racing thoughts, insomnia without feeling tired at all, tons of creativity, tons of ideas, excess energy and motivation, akathisia, euphoria, severe irritability, anxiety, lack of concentration or too much concentration (obsessive behavior), cravings for carbohydrates, I start a lot of things without finishing them, feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem sometimes but feelings of grandeur at other times, morbid dreams, suicidal ideation, lethargy, periods of time when I’m not hungry and can’t eat so I lose a lot of weight…

Do you take medication for your disorder? 
Yes, but I do not talk about which ones and this is the reason: Everyone is different. People experience different symptoms of bipolar and other mental health issues in different ways and to varying degrees. People also metabolize medications differently. What works wonders for one person may be toxic to another person. Lithium is a life-saver for many people but makes all of my hair fall out. There is no getting around the fact that bipolar disorder is difficult to treat and we have to go through a trial-and-error phase to find a combination that works for us. I take an antidepressant, a mood stabilizer, a stimulant for the ADHD, and I also keep anti-anxiety medicine handy but don’t often take it.

Is it working?
For now, yes.

If you take medication, was it hard to find what worked for you?
Oh yes. It took me a trial-and-error phase of more than five years to find a combination that works for me. Part of that is because we (my doctor and I) didn’t realize ADHD was an issue until recently.  I’ve been on pretty much every psychotropic medicine known to man.

Have you experienced any bad side effects?
I could talk for days about all the bad side effects I have experienced during the process of finding the right medicine combination for me.

Do you keep your disorder private, or are you open with it?
I am extremely open with it. I want people to be educated about mental health conditions and not be ashamed to talk about them. I write a lot about mental health issues and consider myself a mental health advocate. I am neither ashamed nor embarrassed about the fact that I have bipolar disorder and ADHD and I work hard to contribute to the fight against stigma so that one day NO ONE will be ashamed or embarrassed.

Do you have regrets about this?
Definitely not. And I’m not done. The writing I have done to help educate the public about mental health issues is only the tip of the iceberg.

Have you faced the stigma of mental illness in your own life as a mom and a business owner?
Oh yes, of course. In fact, I wrote a page about How NOT to Talk to a Person with Bipolar Disorder that addresses ways people talk about and joke about mental illness. On that page I mention something that happened to me recently: I caught up with an old friend on Facebook and we talked a bit about what we’ve been doing for the past 20 or so years. I mentioned I have bipolar disorder and he promptly called me “crazy” and told me to never contact him again. Although it stung like a bitch and I was so angry, I quickly decided not to respond to such ignorance. I deleted the conversation and unfriended him. He is not worth an ounce of my time.

How has your disorder challenged you?
It makes life difficult at times. It is hard to get things done when you are depressed, for sure. I guess my most difficult challenge is just dealing with everyday stress when my brain has difficulty with dealing with stress. I get very overwhelmed sometimes and have learned to ask for help with garden-variety, everyday tasks. My brain likes to shut down when it gets too overwhelmed, sort of like a full cup of coffee… you just can’t fit anything else in that cup because there is no room. I also have issues with social anxiety sometimes, depending on what type of mood I’m in. Sometimes I just don’t want to talk to anyone, so I end up coming across as anti-social or just plain rude. I am very often misunderstood. Substance abuse has also been an issue for me in the past, as it is for many people who have bipolar disorder and other mental health illnesses.

How has it blessed you?
It has blessed me in so many ways. I love my periods of intense creativity and productivity. Also, I have experience with all kinds of deep and intense emotions, so I am able to identify with feelings my kids may be having. It has made me understand the importance of being open, honest, and forthright about mental health issues. Most importantly, it has made me spend less time judging people and more time accepting them and appreciating them for who they are.

Were you concerned about the challenges that motherhood would bring knowing you have a mood disorder?
No. It wasn’t until I had three kids that I was diagnosed. Since then, I have had another child who is now 18 months, but I have to say I did not have any concerns about the challenges, probably because I already had so much practice with the other three.

What support do you have in your life?
I have wonderful support of loving family members and friends who live nearby and help me quite a bit. My husband is very accepting of me and loves me for who I am. What more could I ask for?

It is obvious that you are a great example of a person successfully living with Bipolar Disorder, can you share with us how you do it?
Medication. I am a mess without it. I really cannot function without it. Also, I am not afraid to ask for help when I need it, which has a lot to do with my supportive family and friends. Many people aren’t as lucky as I am.

What advice would you like to share to us moms who are raising kids who have mood disorders?
Educate yourself in every way possible about mental health issues and illnesses. The more you understand, the more you can help your child. Always be there for your child… be open and honest. Speak the truth about mental illness and do not be afraid to talk about it. Teach your child to do the same. Be your child’s advocate and fight tooth and nail for his/her rights and equal treatment, but at the same time don’t let your child use his/her illness as a crutch. Speak out against mental health stigma because it is perpetuating incorrect and harmful beliefs that will hurt your child if it hasn’t already. Mental health illnesses are just as real and just as serious as cancer, diabetes, and other diseases that society recognizes. Suicide stats are high. Know the facts and help spread the truth.

Here are some pages about mental health issues that I have written:

Thursday, October 3, 2013

More than One Voice

I wasn’t surprised to see all of your encouraging responses to my post I am so Angry. What did surprise me was that Bob Carolla, Director of Media Relations, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reached out with his support and offered to contact CNN to run a news story. Sometimes I feel all alone and other times I feel surrounded by support from all over the world. It’s amazing!

Today another blogger/mom/advocate has contributed to the public outcry in her Squidoo post, featuring several examples of the stigma in Halloween including my post. My favorite example is her photo comparison of what a Halloween costume label as “Mental Patient” looks like compared to her very own adorable photo, showing a beautiful, successful mom of 4 who happens to have a mental illness. You have to check it out!

I get so happy seeing our online community coming together for the good of others.

Take Mental Health Stigma Out of Halloween